Divorce, repentance and grace

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Gregory R. Ollick

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There is a profound discussion about divorce, remarriage and the sacraments taking place in Catholic circles all over the world in response to the Synod of Bishops on the family that convenes for the second time in Rome in October. There is a case for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics, in certain cases, to continue to receive the sacraments, including Communion. There are valid issues that need to be addressed on both sides.

There is an objective and subjective side to every act. Because of this, we can never say that a divorced and remarried person is culpable of committing ongoing mortal sin. The church teaches that there are three aspects to culpability/guilt for sin: the objective act, the circumstances, and the intent of the individual. To be guilty of a mortal sin, one must know fully that what he or she is doing is gravely sinful, and freely chose to do it anyway and thus separate himself or herself from God.

The following is a typical example that will help illustrate my case: A young Catholic woman marries (licitly and with the proper canonical form) a Catholic man who she believes is "Mr. Right." They have three children together. The woman is very happy; she loves her husband and family. She thanks God every day for her blessings.

Gradually, the woman's husband begins to act distant, avoiding affection and spending a lot of time "out of town." The husband finally comes home late one night and announces that he wants a divorce. The woman's whole world is shattered.

After the divorce, the woman tries to make life as normal as she can for the children and to do the job of both parents alone. Her ex-husband remarries after a few years, and has a child with his new wife. Finally, the woman meets a man who really loves her children and spends a lot of time with them. He treats them as his own. He is loving, kind, affectionate and, most of all, faithful. After two years together, he asks her to marry him and she says yes. Things are finally looking up.

The woman knows that she can't get remarried in the Catholic church without an annulment. They go to his Protestant minister, who listens to her sad story and agrees to the wedding. The woman truly believes that she has done what is best for herself and her children. She feels that she is not responsible for what happened with her first marriage. She wants to start all over again with a clean slate.

When she goes to confession and tells the priest the whole story, he informs her that he cannot grant her absolution and that she must stop receiving Communion. He says that she is living in sin.

The usual Catholic answer is to seek an annulment, but reliving the experience and heartbreak of the past is something that she can't bear to do. Her ex-husband also would want nothing to do with it. If the tribunal denied her the annulment, what would she be expected to do? She feels abandoned by a church that simply can't understand her situation and continues to judge her as a grave sinner, unfit to come to Communion.

The young woman feels in her heart that she has not sinned. It seems to me that she cannot be found guilty of sin. She followed her conscience as best she could.

This type of thing even happens to Protestants in similar situations who later feel called to become Catholic. They are also turned away from full Communion and the sacraments until they go through the long and painful annulment process. Many are sorely disappointed and, as a consequence, simply walk away from the church, never to return.

Jesus warned his followers about judging others. He said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1). In my opinion, the church should not make itself the judge of what is in the human heart. That is something that can be seen clearly and fully by God alone.

What would Jesus do? I believe he would love her and sympathize with her for the pain that she has endured. He would do what I feel we, as church, should do. He would meet her where she is, and help to move her and her family forward into a more intimate and loving relationship with God and with others.

When Jesus met the woman at the well, he didn't call for the tribunal, though she had had several husbands. No, he loved her, met her where she was and moved her forward.

What about Matthew 19, when Jesus says that if a man divorces his wife, he commits adultery? The Pharisees had approached Jesus in order to test him. He stood up to them and defended the bond of marriage. "It was because of the hardness of your hearts that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). Jewish men could dismiss their wives with a bill of divorce with no sense of wrongdoing.

Jesus raised the institution of marriage to the level of a sacrament. He taught that marriage is a lifelong vow, not to be broken without consequence. He was condemning the man who would simply dismiss his wife because she no longer pleased him, and then marry another.

Jesus consistently taught against this type of selfishness. "What God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Matthew 19:6). In the new covenant, if you ignore Jesus' admonition, you may well be guilty of adultery.

The church must continue to teach and promote the sanctity and the lifelong vows of marriage. This doctrine can never change. On the other hand, when this vow is broken by the selfishness of one of the two parties, the innocent should not be forced to suffer any more than they have already. The church should be offering them the love, understanding and forgiveness of Christ, meeting them where they are and helping them to renew the commitment of the new marriage. The goal should be to continue to move forward while learning from the past but then leaving it behind.

This line of moral reasoning can be carried a step further. Suppose the man, in the case that I presented, finally repented. He realizes that he was wrong. He committed adultery. He deeply injured the woman who loved him, trusted him and bore his children. He abandoned his family in order to satisfy his selfish desires. He was influenced by a culture that tells us that if it feels good, go for it, a culture in which more than half of his friends may have been divorced.

He is now truly sorry. If he could do it all over again, he would never have left his wife for another woman.

What can he honestly do now? He is remarried. His former wife is also happily remarried. If he wants to reconcile with the church and is drawn to the sacraments, he should receive the forgiveness of the God who is always waiting and longing for the sinner to repent.

This, I believe, is a better approach than to try and prove that the original marriage was invalid. The sincere disposition of the heart, required for a truly sacramental marriage, is something known only to God.

This man's marriage may well have been sacramentally valid, and vows were broken, sin was committed. No sin, however, is above the mercy of the God who loves us and wants to give himself to us in Communion. Our God is a God of second chances who always welcomes the repentant sinner back with open arms.

It has always seemed unreasonable to me that we readily grant annulments and permit remarriage in cases of "defect of canonical form" (a Catholic party is married outside of the church without proper paperwork/permission), but we cannot seem to forgive people for certain human failures when it comes to marriage.

People who find themselves in situations like this need the church. They need to continue to receive the graces of the sacraments in Communion with a faith community that supports them and encourages them to live as Jesus has enjoined -- to love as he has loved them and to become what they are called to be -- a sacrament, a visible sign of God's invisible grace.

This is just my opinion as to how the church's mind and practice could change in regard to certain cases of divorce, remarriage and the sacraments. The final determination is up to Pope Francis with the council of the bishops, and we must respect their decision. Let us pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the synod continues to discern the church's official response to one of the most controversial questions since the Second Vatican Council.

[Gregory R. Ollick was ordained as a permanent deacon for the Atlanta archdiocese in 2007. He earned his bachelor's degree in theological studies and his master's degree in theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine.]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 25-Oct 8, 2015 print issue under the headline: Divorce, repentance and grace.

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